Fruits and Vegetables Do More to Reduce Cancer and Extend Life Than Many Prescription Drugs

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nutrition, cancer, longevity, health, fruits, vegetablesIt’s probably not news to most readers that we should all eat more fruits and vegetables. The advice has circulated seemingly since time immemorial, but some researchers at the University College of London have backed it up with hard evidence, measuring the benefits of each daily serving of colorful plant matter.

Their findings: Those who eat seven or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day cut their risk of death at any age by 42 percent compared to those who don’t get a full serving of the foods.

“We all know that eating fruit and vegetables is healthy, but the size of the effect is staggering,” epidemiologist Oyinlola Oyebode, the lead author of the study, said in a news release.

vegetables-fruits-nutritionPerhaps more compellingly, the study, published in Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, was able to document the death-defying benefit of each additional daily portion of fruits and vegetables. By eating between one and three portions, study participants reduced their chance of dying during the 12-year study by 14 percent. Eating 3-5 servings offered a 29 percent advantage, while 5-7 portions reduced the chance of death by 36 percent. The numbers were adjusted to exclude other health factors.

“People shouldn’t feel daunted by a big target like seven,” said Oyebode. “Whatever your starting point, it is always worth eating more fruit and vegetables. In our study even those eating one to three portions had a significantly lower risk than those eating less than one.”

Researchers — who followed a nationally representative sample of more than 65,000 Britons over age 35 for 12 years — parsed the risks of death specifically from cancer or cardiovascular disease. The risk of death from heart disease was nearly a third lower among study participants eating seven servings of fruits and vegetables a day. The vegetable eaters also pruned their risk of deadly cancer by 25 percent.

Few pharmaceuticals have data that persuasive. For example, statins, hailed as a miracle drug for cardiovascular disease, statistically reduce major cardiac events by 18 per 1,000 people over five years, according to one major study.

There’s one little bitter pill among the findings, though: Vegetables are better for you than their sweeter cousins.

A daily serving of fresh vegetables reduced the risk of death by 16 percent; a serving of fresh fruit by 4 percent.

vitamins-supplements-health-nutritionColorful plants could potentially supersede dietary supplements among health and wellness aficionados, at least if marketing campaigns have no say in the matter: A set of studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine recently made waves by concluding that multivitamins have not shown any health benefits whatsoever.

Several studies have additionally challenged the once-common recommendation that fish oil helps prevent heart disease.

And health nuts are being encouraged to add more tree nuts to their diet, even though they are high in fat. A recent U.S. cohort study found that nuts reduced the chance of death by 20 percent and was not linked to higher body-mass indexes.

In matters of healthy diet, then, it seems that the oldest advice is probably the best.

Photos: v.schlichting, Lecic, TheYok via

Cameron Scott

Cameron received degrees in Comparative Literature from Princeton and Cornell universities. He has worked at Mother Jones, SFGate and IDG News Service and been published in California Lawyer and SF Weekly. He lives, predictably, in SF.

Discussion — 7 Responses

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  • Jim Gravelyn April 5, 2014 on 3:06 pm

    If I dip my French fries in ketchup, is that two servings of vegetables (ketchup and potato) or three servings (ketchup, potato, and vegetable oil)?

  • Blake Hall April 5, 2014 on 3:52 pm

    If you follow internationally recognized diet guidelines, such as the Harvard food pyramid:, your chances of good health and long life are increased. Vegetables are no more magical than any other part of a complete diet.

    It’s a sad state of affairs, but all we can do at this point to maximize our health and lifespan is follow goverment diet and exercise guidelines and hope for the best. In the end, DNA trumps all–a guru may drop dead at 40 and a lifelong smoker and drinker live past 90.

  • Cheaperseeker coupon code April 7, 2014 on 7:41 pm

    In matters of healthy diet, then, it seems that the oldest advice is probably the best.

    • Jim Gravelyn Cheaperseeker coupon code April 9, 2014 on 1:27 pm

      Don’t eat your neighbor?

  • didibus April 11, 2014 on 11:55 am

    Was the lifestyle of people taken into account? I expect someone who eats only 1 portion of vegetables a day probably eats a lot more unhealthy stuff too. While a person who gets 7 portion a day probably barely ever eats bad foods. This is important, because we need to know if the impact of vegetables is the only factor in better health, or is the lack of bad foods almost as important. What if I had 7 portions of veggies and also had lots of deserts, trans fat and salt for example? Would the 7 portions still make me 45% less likely to die?

    Also, someone eating 7 portions a day might also entertain a more healthy lifestyle, so probably integrates exercise and all into his routine. Was that taken into account also?

    • Jim Gravelyn didibus April 11, 2014 on 12:26 pm

      I think it depends on what part of the desert you eat. Sand is supposed to be good for digestion according to my pet bird.